Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mark Your Calendars...

...The USAF's next, controversial acquisition decision is scheduled for this fall, with selection of a contractor to build its new combat search-and-rescue helicopter (CSAR-X).

According to Air Force Times, the service is on track to reveal the winner of the competition in the coming months, despite a continuing probe into the last round of CSAR-X bidding. That contract was awarded to Boeing in November 2006, but was later overturned, after protests from rivals Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon Inspector General has been investigating whether program requirements for the original contract met DoD standards, and did not benefit a particular firm, in this case Boeing.

The Chicago-based aerospace giant was a relative late-comer to the initial CSAR-X competition in 2006, offering a rescue platform based on its venerable CH-47 "Chinook." When the Air Force awarded the contract to Boeing, it shocked some industry analysts, who felt that Sikorsky's S-92 or the Lockheed Martin US-101 (based on a European design) were better candidates.

Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin challenged the decision, arguing that the service had ignored its own weight specifications and unfairly evaluated the candidates’ life-cycle costs. When the Air Force issued modified its request for proposals, the two losing firms protested again, claiming that the new standards would simply ensure that the Boeing chopper was selected again.

That sent the Air Force back to the drawing board, releasing more amendments to its request for proposals last fall. Since then, the three competing firms have re-submitted their bids, which are being evaluated by the USAF.

The Air Force is facing enormous pressure to "get the CSAR-X contract right," and not just because its current rescue fleet is getting long in the tooth. Earlier this summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stripped the service of its acquisition authority for the next-generation tanker program (KC-X), after years of controversy surrounding that effort.

Gates made his decision after the USAF selected the Northrop-Grumman KC-30 as its new air refueling platform. Boeing, which offered a tanker version of its 767 jetliner, protested the decision--a challenge that was later upheld by the Government Accountability Office. Investigators for the GAO found "significant errors" in how the contract was originally awarded, prompting Mr. Gates to put the tanker decision in the hands of John Young, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.

Obviously, the Air Force doesn't want a repeat performance with CSAR-X. The most recent tanker debacle is another reason the service has extended selection deadlines for the new rescue helicopter. That will give the USAF acquisition chief (Sue Payton) and her staff more time to go over the various proposals and (presumably) select the best rescue chopper. The Air Force hopes to buy more than 100 new CSAR helicopters in the coming years, a project that is worth more than $15 billion.

However, the extended evaluation process does nothing to alleviate the political fallout that will result from the coming CSAR-X decision. Regardless of who gets the contract, there will be two losing firms, and two groups of upset Congressmen who support those contractors.

With billions on the table, there will almost certainly be a protest of the next CSAR-X contract, and the USAF needs to prove that its acquisition process is finally up to snuff. Providing justification for a successful protest--based on more Air Force mistakes--would be a disaster of the first magnitude, and result in even more problems for the service.

Losing decision-making authority for one major aircraft program is bad enough; losing authority for two programs would be unprecedented, and raise legitimate questions about the future of other Air Force programs--and the acquisition officials charged with running them.

This is one contract the USAF needs to "get right," in every sense of that phrase.

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